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A month ago, I sifted through the usual junk mail and bills to find a hand written envelope from Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It was an official letter from the Tri-State Wesleyan district superintendent. He was writing to advise me that since I am not seeking pastoral assignment and have joined a Methodist church, the Wesleyan Discipline* requires me to voluntarily turn in my ordination credentials.
I started to cry.
Although I haven’t been employed with the title of Pastor since 2018, I still think of myself as a pastor. I’ve just been on an extended hiatus. Asking for my credentials was a perfectly reasonable request, I just didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t ready.
I have a whole philosophy on why ordination is important. It begins with a sense of calling from God—that inner longing to serve. I think it’s also important for that call to be affirmed. As in, a group of believers formally saying, “We recognize in you the gifts of Christian service.” As church people we should take that more seriously—identifying, developing and supporting folks who show the skills for ministry.
I grew up in a time and place where women in ministry weren’t common. Those first few years at district assembly, 2013… 2014… when the ordained elders would do their ceremonial march, I was the only woman in the group. I had a handful of friends, maybe a brother, who weren’t supportive. When I was young I felt like I had something to prove. But as I got older I had a “come and see” attitude. Come and see what I do and let me know if you think I’m called or not. If it’s not obvious, then I should make my life a lot easier and quit.
Through the years, I witnessed people respond in ways that affirmed my calling. It’s difficult to describe, but I’m going to try.
I love God. Sometimes, even since I was a little girl, I get this sense of the Divine Presence that is overwhelming in a good way. I think it compels me to love people and be a better person. Sometimes when I sing or preach a sermon or just talk about God, I can tell it resonates with people. I also work at being kind and empathetic because I genuinely want to be helpful to people.
I want to carry around a sense of God’s loving presence with me wherever I go. I don’t always nail it, but I’m always working on it. When I see people respond to God’s presence, to live in a more authentic way, to serve others, to love more faithfully… it’s easily the most fulfilling thing I could imagine. In that way, I can confidently say that my call into ministry has been affirmed over and over again.
Surrendering the piece of paper (that I can’t find anyway) doesn’t take away from that, but it still stings.
As a little girl, when most kids were thinking about being doctors and lawyers (because that’s what we did in the 80s), I was dreaming of being a pastor. My grandma was my babysitter and we would play church. I would lead the singing, from a hymnal of course, and preach.
I shared my dream with friends and teachers at the Baptist school I attended. They explained to me that the Bible said girls weren’t allowed to be pastors. They could be missionaries, but not pastors. I argued this point regularly, but ten years later, when it came time to declare a major in college, I picked Nursing. I had this idea that I would be a nurse and then maybe someday be able to support myself in some kind of ministry. Maybe I would be a missionary or something.
Nursing school lasted for 3 semesters. My lazy study habits were hard to break, but I managed to pass all my classes. Once I started working in the hospital, I realized, “I don’t really want to do this.” Caring for people, hell yes. The blood, physical pain and extremely boring work of taking vital signs, dispensing medication and taking notes on bowel movements, no thank you!
My dad thought I should look into accounting. My mom thought physical therapy would be a good idea. “I am a slave to a passion,” I said, “I can’t do anything but be a pastor.”
I don’t exactly feel that way now. I still care about people and still want to be of service. The dream is not dead. It’s just, different.
Ordination was something I worked toward for years. Sure, you can pay $25 and get ordained online. But, as I mentioned before, I believe being called requires the affirmation of a church.
The process for ordination in the Wesleyan Church involves a list of educational requirements that basically equate to a Master’s degree. With your local congregation’s recommendation, several years of service, multiple interviews with the district board, it’s quite the process.
Getting through the educational piece alone seemed a nearly impossible task. I barely managed to graduate from seminary in 2007. I was completely exhausted and tens of thousands of dollars in debt—well prepared for one of the lowest paying jobs in our economy.
But I was so worn out. I had nothing left to give. In 2008 I resigned from my part time church job and went to work full time at Home Depot. I needed the recovery. It took almost a year to feel like myself again.
In 2010 my friend, Densel Ball, asked me to come work with him at a small Wesleyan church in the Northland. When I say this church was small, I mean there were like 15 people left and the Tri-State district was discussing a shut down. Still, this place had some compelling history. It had been founded by Wayne and JoAnne Lyon (then the Wesleyan General Superintendent) some 50 years earlier. I knew they wanted to see their legacy come to life again.
I wasn’t really sure being on staff at a church again was a good idea. I had spent the last year or so recovering from pretty severe burn out. I brought my best friend, Amy, with me. I told her that I could at least give it a year.
During the years that followed, we saw the tiny church grow. We started a second service. I got to do all kinds of fun things, like preach, teach Bible studies, write advent readings, produce devotional videos… oh yeah, and I led worship.
In my heart I was a pastor first, but I also worked a full time job. The tension between what my heart wanted and what paid the bills was certainly a struggle. Church got the time and energy that I had left at the end of the day. I was often exhausted and frustrated that I couldn’t give my best effort. I quit twice. But Pastor Densel graciously let me take it back.
Densel had been a good friend to me. He was there for me when I really needed someone. I was getting ready to buy my first house. I had a serious boyfriend and he was supposed to come see it with me, but he overslept and missed the appointment. Densel told me later he was so mad at him for me. We broke up. I still live in that same house that I got for a really good price because Densel taught me how to negotiate.
Everything changed suddenly. In late April of 2017 I got a text message that Densel had been in a car accident. I left work early to get to the hospital. We prayed for a miracle. That night when I got to see him, it was shocking. I wanted to hope, but his body was badly broken.
Our church family kept vigil for 5 days as we waited in the ICU. Pastor Densel had cared for so many people and they showed up to care for him. I watched as they pushed his gurney down the hall to donate his organs and I said, “Goodbye.”
The other two pastors, Sheralyn, Tamiko and I banded together to strategize on how best to support our congregation. Under Densel’s leadership I had been #2 in charge. I felt the heavy weight that I was now responsible for this group of people that we had led together for 8 years.
I missed Densel. For years he had prayed for me to find a husband, and I was so sad that he wouldn’t get to be there for my wedding in June. He really liked Adam. He had been there for me so many times. People started sharing stories and I realized that he had shown up for a lot of people.
My heightened sense of responsibility and the emotions of the moment manifested in an impassioned speech where I asked the congregation if I could be their pastor. Of course they said, “Yes!” It was a very passionate speech. But the look on the district superintendent’s face was not so encouraging. He had, at the staff’s encouragement, asked Matt Lee to be our interim pastor. I felt very dumb. I mean, sure I asked, “Will you let me be your pastor?” But I meant like metaphorically, not literally, like stepping into the role of Senior Pastor.
That was the day Matt Lee introduced me to the concept of self-compassion. It was helpful the following week when I got a call from JoAnne Lyon herself, congratulating me on my new leadership position. I had to talk fast and explain that actually, despite what I had said on Sunday, I wasn’t going to be the new Senior Pastor. She was very encouraging, and I was certainly flattered by the vote of confidence.
I wrestled with the idea of applying to lead the church. Pastor Densel and I had worked side by side for years. He was truly a loving and inspirational man. We had grown this church from just a few people to a thriving and vibrant organization.
Eventually, I decided staying wasn’t right for me. We lived in Kansas, the church was a 25 minute drive to Missouri. We couldn’t afford to relocate. I had a husband and step-daughter now and we weren’t able to afford for me to quit my day job and be full time in ministry. I was tired. Dividing my time between work-work, church-work and now a family, it just didn’t make sense for me to stay.
My last Sunday was in August of 2018. That week my step-daughter was diagnosed with anorexia and began what would become a 3 month stretch in residential treatment in Denver, CO. She had to learn to eat again and we had to learn how to care for her.
I felt responsible for her. Sensing a theme here? It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized, I wasn’t actually the only one tasked with keeping her alive. There’s so much wrong with that idea! My therapist says I have an over functioning responsible part or something like that.
And so I let go.
Meanwhile, my husband’s business has continued to grow. Like, we’re not broke anymore! In March I left an extremely stressful job, where I was actually responsible for a lot (not just in my imagination).
I began to breathe again. Dream again. Create again.
I started to imagine what it might be like to earn a living as a minister. I don’t really know what that looks like. I’ve mentally rolled through a lot of ideas. I know I want to write, but it’s hard to land on a steady theme, you know. I’m searching, maybe feeling a little lost.
I wasn’t ready for the letter I got last month. I’ve never been much for titles, but part of my identity is pastor. I know lack of ordination credentials is not any kind of real limitation, but I still feel sad. I’ve lost something that meant a lot to me.
At the same time this provides the perfect opportunity to think and reflect. What does it mean to be a pastor without position? I once said that I’m a pastor and Home Depot is a parish. I’m challenged by that. I don’t know that I care for people’s spiritual well being as I once did. I mostly just show up and kinda get some stuff done.
I think being of service when I’m in charge is easier for me (because I’m an Enneagram 8?). If I’m in charge, I have to show up because I’m the one that said we should do this thing! But being a volunteer, I can just be “busy” and no one will give me any grief about it.
Studying scripture used to be so much more exciting because I needed ideas to teach my congregation. Now I just study for myself. I’m boring. Good teacher, lazy student. Wait, am I what they mean by “those who can’t do, teach?” Shit.
I’m coming to peace with this no credentials thing. I wrote the district superintendent a response letter. Sorry I can’t find my credentials (that meant a lot to me, I swear) but I promise not to claim that I’m ordained going forward.
Who am I? I am a writer. Even though it’s not what I do for a living.**
I went through some things to earn that title, Reverend. I hope and pray that the time I invested preparing to minister to others will continue to yield great results, like you, reading this right now.
I like what Paul says from Philippians 4.1-4
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
I don’t know what you have on your to do list for today, but I hope it includes doing some good. Get out there and get at it!
*This is a book that outlines church rules, practices and governance policies.